Net-Zero: the West's Suicide Note
In the 1983 U.K. general election, the Labour Party under the amiably leftish leadership of Michael Foot published a manifesto that amounted to a wish-list of extreme socialist policies long sought by the party’s Marxist wing. It leant so far to the left that one of Foot’s closest colleagues, the late Gerald Kaufman, described it privately (in a bon mot that was soon leaked) as “the longest suicide note in history.”
Not any longer. The last few weeks have seen two longer suicide notes by two organizations more important than an opposition U.K. party. They are the G7 nations, which Marx might have described as “the executive committee of the global capitalist democracies”—aka the West—and the International Energy Agency which is a specialized committee of the United Nations system and as such the globalist bureaucracy serving all U.N. member-states.
The distinctions between the two organizations are not trivial, but they usually say the same things, especially on climate change. Indeed, the global organization of anxiety over climate change was initially launched by the U.N. Secretariat in a series of international conferences—Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen—at the end of the Cold War. Its greatest support to date has been found in the G7 countries, especially in the United Kingdom and the European Union (minus coal-producing countries such as Poland) where it has become unchallengeable dogma.
America has been the exception to the G7’s enthusiasm, having repeatedly refused to ratify any of the climate change treaties even when, as now, the U.S. administration was in the hands of climate “emergency” zealots who signed them. Partly as a result, the United States under the Trump administration was able both to reduce its carbon emissions and to re-emerge as an energy super-power by liberating “clean, green” natural gas from the land by fracking.
Oddly, even masochistically, President Biden was elected to reverse this policy and to embrace the Paris conference aim of achieving Net-Zero emissions by 2050. Seeing this as an opportunity to entrench Net-Zero as a legally-binding international obligation on all governments, the G7 and the IEA each issued a report at around the same time, respectively making the political and the technical case for the inevitability of Net-Zero.
There was neither deception nor coyness about this simultaneity; the G7 applauded the IEA for its help. And the joint advocacy is expected to generate overwhelming diplomatic endorsement all the way to the next climate conference this fall in Glasgow. You can read the G7 report here and the IEA report here.
But you should read both with a skeptic eye. Here, for instance, is one of the most important paragraphs in the G7 report [italics mine]:
In this context, we will phase out new direct government support for carbon intensive international fossil fuel energy, except in limited circumstances at the discretion of each country, in a manner that is consistent with an ambitious, clearly defined pathway towards climate neutrality in order to keep 1.5°C within reach, in line with the long-term objectives of the Paris Agreement and best available science. Consistent with this overall approach and recognizing that continued global investment in unabated coal power generation is incompatible with keeping 1.5°C within reach, we stress that international investments in unabated coal must stop now and commit to take concrete steps towards an absolute end to new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021, including through Official Development Assistance, export finance, investment, and financial and trade promotion support. We commit to reviewing our official trade, export and development finance policies towards these objectives. We further call on other major economies to adopt these commitments.
Sounds impressive, right? It’s a wordy elaboration of the idea—relentlessly canvassed in climate emergency propaganda—that we can kill coal by cutting off government subsidies to it and thus making it a bad investment. But as my italics show, the governments are building escape hatches into their commitments at almost every point. They will phase out new and direct government subsidies to coal except in limited circumstances at the discretion of each country, i.e., when a government wants to subsidize coal.
Similarly, they’ll take concrete steps to end subsidies for unabated coal. That’s interesting. The official definition of unabated coal is “the use of coal without any technologies to substantially reduce its CO2 emissions, such as carbon capture and storage.” Carbon capture is the technology, still in large part theoretical, that’s cited as one important way in which carbon emissions can be reduced or eliminated in, for instance, the manufacture of concrete. You can be sure that when carbon capture has become a more practical possibility—or even before that—the governments of coal-producing countries will find that their coal is magically no longer unabated.
And they would have a point. The possibility of carbon capture makes the case against fossil fuels much less strong than it otherwise seems—and certainly more attractive than the policies and lifestyle changes that the IEA report lists as necessary to the achievement of Net-Zero.
I’ve written many times before about the lifestyle changes and their lack of electoral appeal. Here’s Irwin Stelzer, the U.S. economist and entrepreneur, making those points with dispatch:
It is simply unrealistic to expect the world’s politicians to rally support for net-zero emissions by 2050 by telling them there can be no more oil and gas furnaces for sale by 2025, half of air travel will have to cease unless emissions-free fuels are developed, car trips must be replaced with walking and cycling, no permits will be issued to develop new oil and gas fields, and no coal plant will be constructed unless fitted with currently unavailable emission-catching equipment.
That unrealism becomes more risky when we look at the IEA’s coldly realistic analysis of the innovations that will be required to make these lifestyle sacrifices worthwhile in terms of emissions reduction:
Innovation cycles for early stage clean energy technologies are much more rapid in the NZE than what has typically been achieved historically, and most clean energy technologies that have not been demonstrated at scale today reach markets by 2030 at the latest. This means the time from first prototype to market introduction is on average 20 percent faster than the fastest energy technology developments in the past, and around 40 percent faster than was the case for solar PV.
What’s being proposed by the G7 and IEA is a vast leap into the dark—maybe the literal dark unless renewables become much more reliable than they have been to the present.
That may be why the G7’s final plea in the quote above: We further call on other major economies to adopt these commitments” shows no sign of being accepted and implemented by either the big energy-producing countries (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Australia) or the big energy-consuming countries (India, China, and most of the Third World).
Maybe the G7 should heed the IEA’s warning that without such international cooperation, Net-Zero simply can’t be achieved. And if possible, before we’ve spent our children’s and grandchildren's inheritance on it.